Month: October 2005

Buffalo Soldiers, Robert O’Connor

Vintage, 1992, 324 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-679-74203-4

Comparing film adaptations to their source novels is a source of quasi-endless fascination, especially if you make the trip from the derived to the original work. The movie leaves you with images, structure and a smattering of good moments. Reading the book deepens the experience, and sometimes even takes you in a different story. Interestingly enough, more obscure source material (as in “I didn’t know this was adapted from a novel!”) usually reveal more interesting differences than celebrated media blockbusters of the Harry-Potter kind: It’s easy for a studio executive to mess around with lesser-known material without a fan base, but Warner Brother studios would be burned down to the ground by the kids if they even tried to mess around with the original. (“We can’t do that, sir! The kids will kill us! Won’t you think of the children? THE HORRIBLE CHILDREN?!”)

Approaching novels after seeing the film isn’t just a mere exercise in frivolity and facilitated reading: Storytellers should learn how a story gets adapted from one work to another, which details need to be dropped, which changes are necessary to get the audience’s sympathy and so on. Even so-called “hard-edged” movies like FIGHT CLUB are nowhere near as nasty as their literary progenitors.

And so it goes with BUFFALO SOLDIERS, a little-seen film with an interesting history. Billed as a satire about America’s Army at the close of the Cold War, BUFFALO SOLDIERS deals with an amoral anti-hero who manages to turn his stint in German barracks into a profit-making venture on the back of Uncle Sam’s supply lines. Drug-dealing, senseless deaths, inter-service conflict and racial tensions all play a large part in a film that brings to mind many other dark military comedies. Alas, this movie was premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10th, 2001. The perceived profitability of cynical portraits of soldiers fell to the ground the very next day, sending the film back on the studio shelves, and then (much later) to a limited theatrical reserve and an even softer video release.

Too bad, because if the film loses steam in its second half, it’s a serviceable little black comedy with an appealing anti-hero and some neat direction in its first half. It’s dark, but not unbearably so. It doesn’t portray the army favourably, but neither is it an all-out attack on the institution.

The novel is something else.

For one thing, protagonist Ray Elwood isn’t simply the clever petty-thief fixer of the film’s Joaquin Phoenix. In the novel, we’re quick to understand that this miserable heroin junkie is skating on a thin ice of brutal enforcement, cheap thrills, overwhelming greed and careful power-playing. Movie Elwood is a decent, if somewhat amoral chap. Novel Elwood is holding together solely because of fear and smack: Nearly everyone he knows would knife him in the back if they could.

The rest of the novel runs in pretty much the same vein. The events are more similar to the novel that you’d expect (Elwood sees his position threatened by a new authoritarian Master Sergeant, so he seduces his rival’s daughter and sets up an epic drug deal as his last hurrah in the underground business. Then things go wrong.), but the tone is a lot darker. Some changes are significant, yet meaningless (Ray’s new girlfriend is an amputee in the novel, but the film’s Anna Paquin didn’t need the handicap one bit to fit the character), while others are small but important (the novel is set in, at the latest, the early eighties while the movie takes place in 1989. This is significant given how, historically, the US military had unbelievable morale problems in the seventies, gradually clawing its way back up to a far better all-volunteer fighting force. The harsh environment described in either version of Buffalo Soldiers makes sense close to the seventies, but increasingly less so after then.) And then there’s the ending, which was drastically altered from the novel to the film… and I’ll let you guess which one is happier.

And yet, even as a written-word purist, I can’t really fault screenwriter Eric Weiss for softening up the story for the big screen. It’s not a revelation if I say that different mediums have different tolerances for excess: I can think of many scenes that work on the page and would be insupportable if captured on cinema. Junkie-Elwood is a fine novel narrator (except that he speaks in “you”), but he wouldn’t earn more than five minute’s sympathy on screen. The rough stuff that follows is interesting on the page, but would be stomach-churning if seen. The film is fine, and so is the novel: fast-paced, decently-written, sharply-detailed and cynical enough to make anyone think twice about enlisting. See the film, then read the book!

The Wreck of the River of Stars, Michael Flynn

Tor, 2003, 534 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34033-X

This is a review about a book, but like most reviews about a book it suggests more players than simply a review and a book. It suggests a reader and an author. It also suggests a reviewer as an actor in the melodrama that is a review. It suggests that every word of the review shines as much on the critic than the readers of the review who may (but not always) be also readers of the book. This is all very simple, or as simple as human affairs can ever aspire to be.

The book may be called The Wreck of the River of Stars and its author may be Michael Flynn, but wouldn’t it be too quick to simply reduce this review to a mere work and a mere man? Isn’t it true that this book is the product of an entire genre called Science Fiction, of generations of writers all building upon the foundations left by previous writers? This review itself is the product of decades of reading, of writing, of confronting the reviewer with the harsh realities of the outside world as it exists outside the critic’s mind. This review, already quite simple, will turn out to contain multitudes.

While the reviewer would want to discuss the novel, it would be more exact to say that, as with the vast majority of reviews in the history of humankind’s literary progress, it confronts an existing set of prejudices to a new work to be absorbed in the reviewer’s mind. That The Wreck of the River of Stars is a psychological drama masquerading as hard Science Fiction is less important than the critic’s preexisting prejudices about psychology, drama, masquerades, hardness, science and fiction. Deeper analysis is left to the readers, who will undoubtedly see the intricacies under the surface.

Nothing, for instance, would be so simple as to say that the novel is about a crew’s efforts to save their spaceship from peril. Doing so would be doing a disservice to the intricately-defined interactions between characters and their environment. Historical antecedents for this type of novel may include an unworthy strain of “pulp SF”, which would negate this novel’s ambition as a fine exploration of complex psychological group dynamics.

And yet there is another player in the drama of this review, this book, this appreciation. Is it possible to discuss the book intelligently without talking about the Voice of Reason narration so overwhelmingly used by the author? Is it possible to read The Wreck of the River of Stars without being spellbound by a narrative voice more knowledgeable than God himself? Is it even possible to criticize the author as the Voice itself seems to preclude any discussion? A Voice that knows the characters in all their folly, and yet describes even their silliest thoughts with a patience borne out of an infinite compassion?

Hush, says The Voice with mellifluous kindness as frustration arises about the book’s length and patronizing narration. Don’t you know that humble SF fans such as yourself scarcely deserve the kind of psychological insight I proffer with this glorious work of literature? Haven’t you seen that the whole structure of the novel rests on a savvy use of the Briggs-Meyer schema? Don’t you-

At this point, a number of entities in our joyous motley crew of parties dealt with in this essay, perhaps readers, would mumble vaguely about other concepts such as entertainment and pleasure of reading without spending an entire frickin’ weekend slogging through a hundred-page description of two guys eating space pudding while they’re thinking nasty thoughts about the rest of the doomed crew.

But-, would say The Voice.

Shut up, would reply the critic, you’ve had your five hundred pages. Let’s face it: The Wreck of the River of Stars is not just the most pretentious title of the year, it’s also one of the most overwrought excuse for an engineering-SF story that goes wrong and kills off more than half its characters through stupid stuff and the desire to show that you’re not just “another hard-SF writer.” To heck with that, and to heck with the Voice of God crap and to heck with taking a perfectly good thriller and messing it up with three hundred pages of material that could be handled in three lines and a half. Cripes.

Surely you can’t be so angry, would say the Voice, breaking into the author’s voice.

At eleven bucks, five hundred pages, a swarthier-than-thou narration and a downer of an ending, I can be as pissed as I want.

Exit Author, Voice, Novel, Genre, and Critical theory.

Exit Reader, Reviewer, Prejudices, Audience and Review.

Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton

Tor, 2003, 292 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34909-4

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, and that fact may have worked to my advantage as I made my way through Jo Walton’s short-but-rich Tooth and Claw. Perhaps the most succinct description one could make of the book would be “Austen with dragons” and it would even be exact: A comedy of manners set in a world peopled with wings-and-fire dragons, Tooth and Claw re-imagines the rigidly-defined social roles of Victorian romances as being motivated by the biological imperatives of dragonkind.

As a book, it’s definitely a one-in-a-kind curiosity. But don’t think that the interest stops with the premise: Walton is able to do more than paint a pretty world, and so it doesn’t take a lot of time for the dragons, —scales, snouts and all— to grow on us as characters every bit as enjoyable as anything else in the Romantic canon.

The plot is set in motion by the peaceful death of a family patriarch. His corpse has barely any time to cool down that it’s already being torn apart –literally. One thing leads to another and before long the whole inheritance issue is causing its share of troubles between the rest of the family, and those surrounding them.

Despite the scaly eight-foot-tall characters, readers will immediately feel an atmosphere of comfortable reading pleasure. Walton deliberately sets her story in a universe not unlike the English Regency era, alternating between rich country estates and the griminess of a city not called London… Even the dullest fantasy/romance readers like myself will be off and running within a few pages.

Don’t be fooled by the book’s relatively short page count: The story is so gripping that you’ll slow down to read every sentence in full, savouring how Walton is able to build a fabulous novel of character on top of a fantastic premise.

What’s particularly noteworthy for a Science Fiction geek like myself is the way dragons are here approached almost as an exercise in alien world-building. Walton makes it seems as if the most outlandish aspects of her pseudo-romantic society logically derive from biological factors. I knew the novel was going to work for me when Walton explained the irreversible “blushing” effect and made it an integral part of dragon courtship: clever, clever stuff.

Fans of Jane Austen’s work will be bowled over by the way Walton pays careful homage to the conventions of the genre, through inheritances, disdain of the church, reversal of fortunes, hard-working heroes and the reason for it all, big romantic love. There’s no shame in loving a book like this one when it’s so well done.

Tooth and Claw is so surely manned, in fact, that it’s obvious midway through the book that this will end well not just for the characters, but for us as readers. Only a few misstep (the fortuitous arrival of a sizable fortune; too-similar names) mar the overall portrait, but they’re nowhere near denting the considerable reading pleasure offered by the book. An awe-inspiring hybrid between a literary joke and a wintertime-fireside comfort, Tooth and Claw is well worth a look, even for those who think they’ve got no time for romance or fantasy.

Gridlinked, Neal Asher

Tor, 2001, 423 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34905-1

Even since his 2001 debut, Neal Asher has been part of a new generation of British Science Fiction authors with ideas to burn and no mercy to spare. Along with other writers such as Alastair Reynolds or Richard Morgan, Asher has been busy putting thrills back in SF action novels. His fiction has only recently made it over this side of the Atlantic thanks to Tor’s reprints of his first few novels. Clearly, it was time to see what the fuss was all about.

Starting from the beginning means going back to Gridlinked, the first novel in the “Polity” sequence that has so far tied together most of his work. The book works well as an introduction, even though its own introduction may be the best thing about it.

Fans of hard-boiled espionage thrillers will feel right at home throughout the first few pages, as protagonist Cormac is revealed to be an agent for the interplanetary human government. Within a few pages, he efficiently dispatches a rebel threat to the Polity, blows up a part of the city and escapes with his life. It’s all good fun, packed with fast-paced action and a bit too much dripping violence.

The real story then starts rolling, as the Polity sends Cormac on a primitive planet far away from the Grid in which our protagonist has been plugged for too long. A destructive act of sabotage may not be an accident –and it’s up to Cormac and his team to make sense of it. Meanwhile, the mindless action prologue turns out not to be so meaningless when a grieving man decides to hunt down Cormac wherever he is, bringing along some very scary friends…

As setup, the first half of Gridlinked works beautifully. Despite some awkward language (“runcible” may have some appeal to native English-speaking readers, but it doesn’t carry much emotional weight for me), the Polity universe is efficiently introduced, with plenty of details to keep us interested. Civilization spans the galaxy, Hyper-intelligent AIs run everything, bioengineering is common and there are troubling signs of long-lived aliens. As if that wasn’t enough, Asher comes up with Mr. Crane, an insane, indestructible and very homicidal brass android. Killer robots are a dime a dozen in SF, but to see an schizophrenic one travel with a briefcase of meaningless toys is something else. (It’s no coincidence if the latest Asher novel is titled Brass Man.)

But for all the cool toys and the fun stuff, the expansive playground and the thrill of good old action-adventure, Gridlinked seems to run out of steam midway through. Even weeks later, I remember a number of elements from the beginning of the novel, and almost nothing of the end. Not so coincidentally, I do remember a deep feeling of let-down at the point where the Dragon is revealed to be part of the novel’s plot rather than an amusing side-detail.

The rest of the novel plays like a standard chase thriller with stranger pursuers and faster vehicles. Asher doesn’t to much with the un-gridlinking of his protagonist and spends too much time with the antagonist. After a while, it just becomes a big blur. You’ll keep reading to see what happens to a few characters, and sigh in slight exasperation as one miraculous escape follows another.

I’m still not so sure why my interest evaporated so quickly: this is the type of novel that I’m supposed to like, and yet it just fell flat. The book as a whole runs significantly too long, leaving the impression that it’s overwritten. The mundane eventually overwhelms the interesting. Even the answers to the original mystery don’t seem so urgent by the end of the book. I found myself wondering when I’d be able to get my hands on Richard Morgan’s next novel.

But I’m not giving up on Asher. He’s clearly part of Cyberpunk 2.0, and likely to grow into a more skillful writer: the memorable elements of Gridlinked clearly show that he’s not to be dismissed lightly. My dissatisfaction with Gridlinked may just be a freak accident of public transportation distraction, or it may be the result of a first novel’s lack of control. Whatever the reason, I’m likely to have a look at Asher’s other work… in due time.

Deception Point, Dan Brown

Pocket, 2001, 557 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02738-7

Books seldom get a second chance. Most of them surface in bookstores, don’t sell all that well and disappear in a whimper, never to resurface. In lucky cases, they may be reprinted after a movie adaptation or a runaway bestseller by the same author. In Dan Brown’s case, his publisher didn’t just get one mega-seller with The Da Vinci Code: It got three bonus best-sellers by reprinting Brown’s previous novels, none of which had sold all that well during their first print runs. (The good news is that if you’ve got one of those first editions, you can pretty much pay for your next holidays by selling it to collectors.)

And so that’s how Deception Point re-emerged in bookstores three years after original publication, granted a second life by the boffo success of Brown’s fourth novel. For fans of The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons, how does Brown’s third novel stack up?

The least one can say is that there is consistency to his method, even though the atmosphere of the book is different from the “Robert Langdon” thrillers. Deception Point is more political (not partisan, mind you, but with a number of power-playing politicians as characters), more action-oriented and, in some respects, closer to a typical techno-thriller than Brown’s best-known works. For those who complained that The Da Vinci Code was all talk and little action, have a look at this one.

It starts in Washington D.C., as protagonist Rachel Sexton is sent to an Arctic glacier on behalf of the president. Her mission: validate a revolutionary scientific find that you won’t have any trouble guessing ahead of time. But things aren’t so simple, of course. For one thing, Rachel is the daughter of another politician with excellent chances of taking over the White House. For another, there are three Delta Force operatives buried in the snow, making sure that everything goes according to plan…

No doubt about it: Deception Point is a full-bore, straight-ahead thriller that faithfully understands the rules of the genre. Exotic facts, clear characters, steady forward momentum and unobtrusive writing are the norm here, and it’s not hard to imagine Brown asking himself “How can I juice up this storyline?” over and over again. As a result, there are the usual nick-of-time escapes, chases, explosions, fancy deaths and ruthless operators. It’s formulaic, but it works really well in sucking the reader from one tight chapter to another. While the literary and religious world have united in condemning Brown’s success, faithful thriller readers can only appreciate that Brown is just doing what he’s supposed to do. NRO, nuclear submarines, oceanographic research, high-tech weaponry, White House operational details, woo-hoo!

It’s not all good, of course. A number of errors here and there spoil the effect (somehow, I don’t think that an entire meteorite can be heated up by a focused laser), but not as much as a few outrageous developments. In his quest to amplify the impact of his storyline, Brown often overreaches, and the reader is abruptly reminded that this is only, after all, a particularly sophisticated thrill machine. (This impression gets worse as the book nears its end and lasts just a bit too long.) Brown does himself disservice by swearing up and down that technologies described in the book all exist: knowledgeable readers will roll their eyes at the ways he stretches a number of point. His sources of inspiration are also obvious: Echoes of 1996-1998 Bill Clinton are obvious in at least two separate plot threads.

Worse yet for Brown fans is the way he repeats himself from one novel to another. Never trust his mentor characters! What’s both amusing and infuriating is the way Brown is willing to take on sacred cows (the Vatican, CERN, here NASA) in his quest for ever-more fantastic antagonists: While it may be interesting to read about, it also sends a generally muddled message –assuming messages are what Brown wants to send.

Otherwise, well, this is another solid thriller from a writer suddenly hyped beyond any reasonable chance of fulfilling expectations. It may or may not be better, from a technical perspective, than The Da Vinci Code, but it’s sure to offer what people are looking for when they’re picking up a thriller. It seldom slows down during its 550+ pages, and neither will readers.

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit aka Wallace and Grommit In The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (2005)

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit aka Wallace and Grommit In The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (2005)

(In theaters, October 2005) Expectations were high for this first feature-length Wallace and Gromit film after the success of their previous short animated films and the boffo Chicken Run. Fortunately they’re all met with stylish wit in this animated horror film parody. Once again, the staff at Aardman studios is in full mastery of their art: Grommit’s silent performance is astonishing, and not just because it’s coming from a staff of dozen. A number of surprisingly audacious gags (featuring religious imagery, or produce-driven innuendos) pepper a solid script that will appeal equally to kids and adults. The deliberately rough claymation “with fingerprints” is a debatable artistic choice, but the rest of the film is almost perfect. Don’t miss it: it’s sure to become a DVD classic.

The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney

Basic Books, 2005, 342 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-465-04675-4

Faithful readers of these reviews (if any) already suspect my distinct lack of enthusiasm for the Bush administration in particular and modern Republicanism in general. If there was plenty to admire in the traditional Republican model (fiscal restraint, promotion of civility, determination to use force when necessary), the newer post-Goldwater Republicanism has forged an alliance between religious conservatives and big-business interest that’s simply too dangerous to condone. Especially when its starts messing with science.

In The Republican War on Terror, science journalist Chris Mooney takes aim, as the title clearly indicates, at the steady pattern of anti-scientific behaviour from Republican politicians. While acknowledging early on that political abuse of science is a bipartisan affair, Mooney thinks that there is particular cause to single out Republicans (not just the Bush administration) as the worst offenders. They, argues Mooney, have a long history of deliberately misrepresenting research, shutting down independent enquiries and financing their own brand of contrarian research through ideological think-tanks. After reading the book, you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree.

The problem stems from the modern Republican Party’s two biggest constituencies: The Religious Right and Big Business interests. Neither of them are particularly interested in the objective assessment processes of science, nor in factual conclusions. Mooney takes us back to the Reagan years, with a look at the Goldwater campaign, to demonstrate the long history of anti-intellectualism within the Republican Party. Then he works his way forward, showing the damage caused by both of those factors.

Big Business, of course, has a number of business models to protect. Anything that suggests health impacts from industrial activities directly threatens those business models. Hence the tobacco companies’ efforts at discrediting links between cigarettes and lung cancer. Hence the efforts to finance studies by ideologically-driven institutes to disprove or dismiss evidence of Global Warming. You can expect industry lobby to say these things, but when Republican members of congress parrot the same lines, (allowing the “moderate” Bush administration to say “well, there’s doubt out there”), it’s clearly not the same game.

The Religious Right, on the other hand, has realized that strictly moral points aren’t “sellable” by themselves and so resorts to false science in order to “demonstrate” its ideological values. Can’t argue that abortions are immoral? Just manufacture proofs that abortions offer health risks. Can’t deal with the reality of condoms? Just say they don’t work. Studies that suggest that abstinence-only sexual education programs are ineffective or that needle-exchange programs work are dismissed not because they’re flawed, but because they don’t agree with the conservative social agenda. Again, you would expect church leaders to make those claims, but when carefully-chose federal officials start messing with research funds in order to eliminate dissenting research, it’s time to ring the alarm bell.

Mooney shows, over and over again, a steady pattern of scientific abuse, dismissal, politicization of government agencies, anti-intellectual trends, attack mechanism that the anti-science agenda of the Republican party becomes more than obvious. (And we haven’t even said anything about the “Intelligent Design” nonsense.) Particularly revealing is the pattern through which politicians can influence scientific research through spin or budgetary manoeuvres. It’s impossible to claim an interest in the modern scientific research process and ignore this book. (And lest I be accused of cheap anti-Americanism, it’s true that Canada’s own federal research infrastructure has known its share of controversy. Search around for “Shiv Chopra” for the details.)

The Republican War on Science is certainly not a pleasant reading experience. It’s infuriating, depressing, mind-boggling and completely convincing. Mooney has spent a lot of time and effort proving his thesis: Of the book’s 342 pages, eight list interview subjects and over sixty are made of notes and sources. A dozen-page index makes this a great reference source. The main text itself is clearly written and utterly damning. The thin appendix suggests a few solutions, but the problem itself seems formidable. Maybe it’s time for our American friends to clean their House?

Saw II (2005)

Saw II (2005)

(In theaters, October 2005) While no classic, the original Saw at least played with a very unnerving idea: The thought that someone could put you in a situation where your only chance at survival would be to do extreme violence to yourself. Simple idea, fairly well executed despite a number of misfires. Unfortunately, the shell of this concept seemed to have been lost in this sequel, which ignores the horror of puzzle boxes to instead rely on a bunch of fairly unlikeable people thrown together as for an extra-gory reality TV show. The murderer is once again an all-knowing, all-powerful villain: his unlikely influence on the events is a bit too much to consider seriously. Overall, the film sputters without much of a clue: even the end’s climactic mutilation seems more dumb than horrific. (Use mirrors, dude!) Oh well; as exploitation horror sequels go, I’ve seen much worse.

Madagascar (2005)

Madagascar (2005)

(In theaters, October 2005) Dreamworks Animation Studio has perfected the art of B-grade computer animated films for kids (see A Shark’s Tale), but Madagascar is unlikely to do much to raise their non-Shrek profile. Cursed with unappealing character designs and even more unappealing characters (though Alex the Lion gets a pass on account of his pentagonal mane), Madagascar is just unpleasant to watch and not much more fun to follow. The tortured plot seems forced, and we’re left to contemplate over and over again if there’s a reason for this film to exist. The animation is fairly good, but can’t do much to overcome the shackles of the character design. Give me cute and cuddly! The penguins are a rare bright spot in an otherwise unremarkable film. It’s hard to watch without thinking that something just isn’t working properly.

The Legend Of Zorro (2005)

The Legend Of Zorro (2005)

(In theaters, October 2005) I really do love the original Mark Of Zorro, but my patience was tested by this wholly unnecessary sequel: While it’s cool to see Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones once more in the roles that made them famous, this sequel seems to have forgotten the sense of fun that made the first one so enjoyable. Here, Zorro struggles through divorce and alcoholism while we whistle a country tune and wonder when are we going to be done with the boring part? Alas, things get moving quite late in the film, with maybe twenty minutes of physics-defying action left in the story. Meh; I was entertained, but certainly not thrilled.

Magnificent Desolation: Walking On The Moon 3D (2005)

Magnificent Desolation: Walking On The Moon 3D (2005)

(In IMAX theatres, October 2005) It had been a long time since I’d stepped inside an IMAX movie theatre, and this was a fine way of doing it: a short documentary about moonwalks, with a careful CGI recreation of the experience and musings on when we’ll go back. Nicely narrated by Tom Hanks, this film suffers from being too short: It would have been nice to see some more of that IMAX-resolution CGI. Otherwise, there isn’t much to say: Good usage of archival material, good script (which even acknowledges the whole moon-mission-hoax nuttiness) and even the sentimentality doesn’t seem out of place: I want humans to go back on the moon as badly as everyone involved in the making of the film seems to be.

Looking for Jake, China Miéville

Del Rey, 2005, 303 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-345-47607-7

After the highly atypical success of Perdido Street Station and the two subsequent “Bas-Lag” novels, China Miéville now has a short-story collection on the shelves: Looking for Jake. Unlike other authors with drawers full of short fiction, this collection took a fair time to assemble because of the scarcity of material to reprint: Miéville is a long-distance writer, and his predilection for writing long means that his short-story output has been comparatively slight, and late in coming: Of the 14 stories in Looking for Jake, only two date from before Perdido Street Station. This anthology will allow readers to answer an interesting question: We know that Miéville can write novels, but is he as good with his short stories?

At first, the answer is reassuring. Cherry-picking the collection for its best material, one quickly settle on a few noteworthy short stories. “Reports of Certain Events in London” is a natural choice, given how it was nominated for a 2005 World Fantasy Award. Much like most of the other tales in the volume, it features unusual storytelling (a writer named “China Miéville” telling us about a package mistakenly received) and an original idea (migratory street-fighting!). “Foundations” tells us about buildings thirsting for sacrifice, with a political twist. “Go Between” is about a man asked to bring things (discovered in the strangest yet most ordinary locations) to other places, with no idea what or who he’s working for and even less of an idea if his work (or refusal to work) is doing anything at all; a fine tale well-told. “The Ball Room” packs a mean chill as a horror story told from within an IKEA-like store, though you’ll have to squint at the table of contents to discover that it was co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer.

Clearly, Looking for Jake shows that Miéville, for all of his critical acclaim, remains a horror storyteller first and foremost. “The Tain” and the title story may be exquisitely written, but they remain post-apocalyptic stories with mean beasties lurking in the background. (In “The Tain”, as the title suggests, mirror reflexions take over “our world”. The scene revealing the idea is deliciously shocking.) I may not have cared too much for “Familiar”, but it features plenty of gruesome and grotesque content. Miéville even allows himself some faint Lovecraftian overtones of someone who has clearly Seen Too Much in “Details”. Unwelcome vision also plays a part in “Different Skies”, which brings to mind a riff on the classic “Slow Glass” concept.

But there isn’t just horror in Looking for Jake: Miéville is a funny fellow in conversation, and so a few humorous stories pepper the anthology. The most obvious of them is “’tis the Season”, a holiday tale (first published in no less a venue than Socialist Review) set in a future where Christmas™ is only available to those with the means to license it. “Entry Taken From a Medical Encyclopedia” re-prints Miéville contribution to the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases: It’s impossible to summarize, but it’s both spooky and hilarious. “Jack” may not be a funny story, but it’s a fine nod toward fans of the Bas-Lag universe, with a twist. “An End to Hunger” is a dot-com tale halfway between humour and horror, though its overall impact is muted.

Not that it’s the only misfire in the collection. Tastes will differ, but I myself couldn’t make myself care for “Familiar”, “Details” nor “Different Skies.” I still can’t make much sense of “On the Way to the Front”, a short graphic short story (with illustrations by Liam Sharp) that’s heavy on mood but light on meaning. In the same vein, a number of stories bury their central idea in too much distraction, with “The Tain” being perhaps the most obvious example.

On the other hand, “The Tain” is the story with the best characterization, which is no accident given how it’s three times as long as the other stories. Miéville’s talent for well-written invention shines through his short stories, but it’s obvious that he needs the space offered by a novel to develop his visions. Still, Looking for Jake offers plenty of thrills for Miéville fans, and plenty of chills for all readers. In fact, it’s a decent introduction to his work for harried readers without the time to read any of his massive novels. The writing is good (if not exactly tight) and the ideas are there. It’ll probably take five years before Miéville writes enough short stories to fill another collection, but Looking for Jake will do until then.

A History Of Violence (2005)

A History Of Violence (2005)

(In theaters, October 2005) “Cronenberg does Charles Bronson” would have been an interesting log-line if it wasn’t for the end result, which feels a lot like “Charles Bronson on Valium”. The simple, simple story of a man sucked back in violent acts after years escaping his past, A History Of Violence is pretty thoroughly spoiled by its trailer, and not even a radically different third act actually deviates from the story act suggested in the first half hour of the film. The performances are nicely understated and the director consciously avoids any glorification of action, but this doesn’t play as well as you would think: The film rather feels like swimming in molasses, ruminating over the same points over and over again. The last twenty minutes of the film feel like a replay of the previous forty, with the protagonist doing pretty much what he has to do in order to solve the problem. Again. The tepid pacing doesn’t help much: we’ve seen this story dozens of time before, in B-movies that at least had the decency not to take themselves too seriously. But Cronenberg does, A History Of Violence does, and this valiant attempt to bring grind-house plotting to the geriatric set does no one any favour.

Doom (2005)

Doom (2005)

(In theaters, October 2005) It takes a heck of a lot of work to adapt a first-person shooter into a dull movie that completely ignore the game’s plot. And yet the geniuses behind this movie (including director Andrzej Bartkowiak, whose Exit Wounds and Cradle 2 The Grave weren’t bad at all) found a way to neuter Doom‘s hellish theme and make a movie whose middle hour is one uninterrupted stretch of boredom. Nice going, Mensa candidates (golf clap). The movie isn’t without its good moments (the opening zoom shot; the BFG; and boy-oh-boy isn’t Rosamund Pike a cutie?) but they’re like droplets of cool water in a scorching inferno of dull movie-making. Karl Urban and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson both do fine as macho heroes (even graphically illustrating the original meaning of fragging), but the rest of the film can’t really rise above the level of a dull Aliens ripoff. Except when it comes to scientific verisimilitude, in which case Doom gets beaten up by every zombie film ever made, including the first Resident Evil. As one of the original 1993-vintage Doom fans, I can recall then-rumours of a movie project with amused bemusement: “What? An hour and a half of a first-person view running through corridors?” And yet the neatest ironic twist on that wisecrack is that the best sequence of the film is indeed five minutes of a first-person view running through corridors. Showing both technical skills and amazing audacity, this sequence rises far above the rest of the film. Well, except for the end credit sequence, in which a first-person player shoots away the names of the film’s cast and crew. Nice touch. Eerily appropriate, given my mood at the end of the film.

Domino (2005)

Domino (2005)

(In theaters, October 2005) After Man On Fire, one could reasonably wonder if director Tony Scott had gone insane. This question is decisively settled with Domino, a garish experiment in cinema grammar that’s as glorious as it’s completely out of control. Nominally a story “sort of” adapted from the life of a real posh-chick turned bounty hunter, Domino quickly abandons any pretence at realism to dive boldly in the abyss of digital colour manipulation. Looped lines, tricky chronological structure, trippy visuals, incoherent over-editing and fancy subtitles are only a few of the tricks unleashed on what could have been a fairly enjoyable story. But everything here is drenched in saturated colours, brought to the limit of coherency by a director more interested in pushing the envelope than he is in delivering a good story. The result is a blast, but it’s as exhilarating as it’s disorienting: Few will have the stomach to last through a gratuitous Jerry Springer episode, a gruesome amputation and Tom Waits as a mystical desert stranger. Bad by most objective standards, but still fascinating in a ghastly kind of way. Much as I loathe to admit it, I’m really looking forward to Tony Scott’s next film.